Her Own Private Ithaca: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside

Stateside3Jehanne Dubrow’s volume of poems Stateside portrays a stressful period in the marriage of the poems’ speaker before, during, and after the deployment of her husband, a Navy enlisted sailor or officer.  In so doing, it brings impressive skill and sensitivity to bear on the theme that war is also hell on the home front. Dubrow, who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, sets Stateside‘s poems in nearby locales such as Washington DC, Virginia Beach, and Assateague Island.  I know the Chesapeake Bay/mid-Atlantic region well and love it like crazy, but here it serves as the backdrop for pain and confusion.  Home is where the hurt is, indeed.

Dubrow’s artistry shows in her ingenious adaptation of traditional verse forms and meters.  Many of the poems in Stateside are sonnets, for instance, but Dubrow makes this stuffy form amenable to contemporary thought and speech by mixing up conventional rhyme and stanza schemes and relaxing the stately iambic pentameter rumble.  Check the following, for an example:

     "The Rooted Bed"     

     I’m stateside now, my husband six months gone.
       I think of another soldier and his wife
     they built their bedpost from an olive tree,
       roots spreading underfoot, gray branches splayed
     like fingers, floorboards grassy as a lawn.
       The tree grew through the center of their life.
     They slept beneath its living canopy.
       And once the wife was alone, its shade
     stroked darkened hands across her brow.
       I like to imagine that she often thought
     of chopping down the trunk, fed up with boughs
       which dropped their leaves, black fruit turning to rot.
     I can’t help asking if, when he came home,
       did they lie together there or sleep alone?

Reading Stateside the first time through, I did not notice how structured by meter and rhyme the poems were, but the clever stylistics fill the verse with an allure and power that kept drawing me back.  I can also easily imagine them being very pleasant to hear read aloud, with the music of rhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration, and assonance swirling through the air enroute to the ear.

The passage in “The Rooted Bed” about boughs and leaves recalls Shakespeare’s great Sonnet 73, in which “yellow leaves, or none, or few” hang on the boughs of trees which are said to be “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” But the real precursor poem here is Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Odysseus and his wife Penelope have built a massive bed attached to a tree, alone in which Penelope sleeps for twenty years while Odysseus goes to war.  A head note to “The Rooted Bed,” taken from The Odyssey, offers a direct clue to Dubrow’s thematic concerns:  “One moment he seemed … Odysseus to the life– / the next, no, he was not the man she knew.”  So too do the titles of the poems that follow “The Rooted Bed”:  “Argos,” “Ithaca,” “Penelope, Stateside,” and so on.  In Penelope, Dubrow finds an historical-literary ancestor who lends gravitas and imagination to her saga of contemporary marital angst.

“The Rooted Bed” and other poems titled “In Penelope’s Bedroom” and “On the Erotics of Deployment” suggest that Dubrow is not shy about exploring the carnal dimensions of modern military marriage.  A great scene from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where Big Mama berates Maggie the Cat by saying, “When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there, right there” while emphatically slapping Maggie’s bed seems to be the spirit of Stateside, too.  Unhappiness in the bedroom begets unhappiness in life, or vice-versa, but in either case it’s not very fun to live through. Poem after poem in Stateside records a husband-wife relationship beset by chill—desire unrequited, communication balked, and passion a memory.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie suspects her husband Brick desires his friend Skipper more than he does her, and she attempts to seduce Skipper to test her theory and spite her husband.  Adultery and homosexuality don’t figure in Stateside, but the psycho-sexual circuitry of Cat crackles throughout the volume.  Dubrow’s poetic speaker can’t help but feel disappointed by her husband, who is preoccupied by career, mission, and unit.  She’s also stung by his obliviousness to her desire, and frankly, a little mystified herself at its persistent strong presence.  The dream of a shared life—public, domestic, and intimate–trashed by the war, she now wonders about Penelope’s sterling rectitude in the face of her many suitors.  Surely her thoughts and emotions must have been more complicated than Homer tells us.  Suggesting how that might be so, she uses the tools of history and poetry to make what is nominally her husband’s war even more her own than it already is.

My favorite poem from Stateside:      

     "Surface Warfare"

     Our arguments move
     across the surfaces
     of things, smooth

     flat areas where silence
     floats for weeks.
     The rule:  whoever speaks

     first loses.  If he patrols
     the living room,
     then I control

     our bed, an Atlantic
     filled with my insomnia,
     the quilts too thick

     to wade through.
     Some nights I think
     drowning would be easier

     and drink mouthfuls of salt.
     No shallows here,
     only the fathoms of marriage,

     and we are anchored side
     by side, the darkness wide,
     percussive as a mine.

Stateside was published in 2010 by Triquarterly Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press.  It might be read usefully and pleasurably alongside Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, also published in 2010 and Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, published in 2005.  All three use poetry to explore the war’s devastating impact on trust and intimacy from a woman’s point-of-view.    

More on Stateside from Jehanne Dubrow’s website

A review of Stateside by David Abrams from his blog The Quivering Pen

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